The Big Idea: John Schwartz

New York Times reporter John Schwartz covers the nation for his beat at the newspaper. But his latest book Oddly Normal finds him reporting from home, writing about the challenges of raising a child who chooses to come out as gay at an early age. Schwartz and his wife found themselves without a map of this particular child-raising territory and went looking guidance and inspiration. What did they find? Schwartz is here to tell you.


When I set out to write a book about our experiences raising a child who turned out to be gay and troubled, I looked for wisdom – the kind of ideas that could propel me through writing a book that other people might actually want to read.

I didn’t want to write a self-help book or a how-to guide, since I don’t read them and don’t see myself as an authority on anything, especially parenting. And since our youngest son tried to commit suicide, I’m not sure I necessarily present the kind of example anyone else might feel compelled to follow. Besides, the best how-to guide in the world could be summed up by its first sentence. The book is Dr. Benjamin Spock’s famous book Baby and Child Care, and the first sentence is simply this: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think.” How could I ever improve on that?

I also knew that I didn’t want to try to transmute my experiences into a novel. As a newspaper reporter, I have enough trouble getting facts right; creating whole new sets of facts seemed to almost certainly be beyond my abilities.

Besides, I was inspired by the words of a journalism buddy of mine, Tim Noah, who wrote that while he couldn’t stand self-help books, he found great comfort in memoirs. Tim wrote that he takes greater meaning, and greater comfort, from memoirs. “What I’ve come to believe is that psychological advice isn’t worth much if it isn’t rooted in personal experience,” he said. “So instead of reading self-help books I read memoirs about the kinds of experience I’m trying to cope with.”

So: a memoir. A memoir about being a parent of a child who is different. A child who was burdened by his differences, and who we tried to help to accept himself.

Like a lot of gay kids you hear about these days, Joseph attempted suicide. He was 13, it was shattering to us all. And it set me to exploring why a kid who is gay might do such a thing. The standard media storyline puts it into a form that can almost be an equation: gay teen + bullying = suicide. But when Joseph took an overdose of pills at 13, it had been some time since anyone had actively bullied him. It made me wonder if there could be something more going on, and that set me on a path to the work of Ilan Meyer, a psychologist who developed a theory of “minority stress.” In his view, a young person who is gay might be bullied, or fear bullying, sure – but he also might carry around an inner bully who kicks his ass more forcefully than any external bully in the cafeteria. Self image can be cruel, and the stress of concealing oneself can increase the pressure tremendously. The underlying problem, by Meyer’s reasoning, is the stress of being different.

It made a lot of sense. And it made me think back on a book that I love: David Gerrold’s The Martian Child: A Novel About a Single Father Adopting a Son. Science fiction fans know David Gerrold as the science fiction novelist who gave us works like “When HARLIE Was One” and the great episode of Star Trek, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Martian Child was different: an autobiographical novel about adopting a son who had ADHD and other issues—including the boy’s insistence that he was actually from Mars.

Now this is a child who is different. And the experience of raising the boy and trying to understand him through the open-minded perspective of writing science fiction led Gerrold to a memory and a revelation: that “I was a Martian child too.” He remembered that “back when I was a kid, when I was the smallest and the smartest, when I was getting picked on every day, when I was teased for just being alive, I knew that someday the Martians would come and get me.” Once with his own kind, he had imagined, “we would never hurt again, we would never be lonely again.”

So my wife and I are raising a gay kid who is different in many ways: smart, funny, but also socially awkward and emotionally vulnerable. We wouldn’t have him any other way. And I wanted to say that all children, and especially the children who are different, need to be embraced and supported and loved.

Science fiction can save your family. Who knew?


Oddly Normal: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the book’s Facebook page. Follow Schwartz on Twitter.

19 Comments on “The Big Idea: John Schwartz”

  1. As a matter of probably unnecessary disclosure, Mr. Schwartz recently wrote a profile of me for his newspaper. His appearance here as a Big Idea feature is not a quid pro quo (i.e., I neither suggested the exchange of appearances, nor did Mr. Schwartz). I did offer him a slot when I learned about the book and its subject.

  2. Yeah, I can relate to the inner bully. I was bullied between the ages 11 and 12 1/2. It ended with a majestic parental intervention that not only moved me out of that school, but also out of the country. There were a lot of things going on.

    But I don’t think even now I’ve rid myself entirely of the voice in my head that tells me I’m awful. It pops up sometimes. No amount of external “proof” of the contrary helps much.

    So, yeah. I think I can guess what that kid went through.

  3. Wow. Sold!

    I can’t wait to read this. It ain’t easy being a sexual minority, I know.

  4. I am buying this the minute I get off of work. It sounds awesome! Thanks John for another book that I would probably never have found without “The Big Idea”.

  5. Fascinating book, I’ll have to check it out–I wish I could have read it when I was growing up! I completely understand the “inner-bullying” thing; my inner-bully was as nasty, if not nastier, than the actual bullies I faced.

  6. Self image can be cruel, and the stress of concealing oneself can increase the pressure tremendously. The underlying problem, by Meyer’s reasoning, is the stress of being different.

    I can’t imagine what a gay child goes through in our society, but I know there is also stress, of the kind that can lead to serious emotional damage and suicidal thoughts, to be found in the inner certainty that who you are will NEVER be accepted by others, so you better perfect that façade if you want the world to have anything to do with you. When you give up who you are, you may escape bullying, but you’ll become your own worst enemy. I wish I had, in my formative years, had half the courage it takes a child who is gay to come out before adulthood.

    Science fiction fans know David Gerrold as the science fiction novelist who gave us works like “When HARLIE Was One” and the great episode of Star Trek, “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

    I discovered Gerrold last year and it’s like I found Heinlein and Philip K. Dick rolled into one and reinvented with a modern perspective and a whole new list of unread titles :)

  7. Oh yes, the inner bully. I love her but she is a bitch sometimes. On reserve at the library. I am looking forward to reading this.

  8. Than you John! I live in a far different political climate than Darke County (flip the numbers) and I can tell you that there are still people who could benefit from experiences that this book is trying to share.

  9. As the father of a child who suffers from a debilitating anxiety that he can’t discuss or control, I’m going to grab this book right now in the hope that it might shed some light on our situation. Thanks, John, for continuing to offer these Big Idea opportunities.

  10. This one does look promising. As for the Gerrold reference, I would recommend his “The War Against Chtorr” series.

  11. Martian Child was also made into a rather nice little movie in 2007. Stars John Cusack and Amanda Peet, and the DVD has a documentary about Gerrold and his son.

  12. I am always a bit bothered by the writing of memoirs focusing on children, who might later in their life (or even now, for that matter) wish that details of their childhood weren’t floating about for the world to read. Strikes me as a terrible invasion, almost a betrayal.

  13. Thanks John, I came out in my teens and am now 53. It was not easy for teens then, or now. What gives me even greater hope is that parents tend to be so much more supportive now. I know how important that is, my parents supported me – I have an intense loyalty to my parents.

  14. Who knew that this feeling that young people share that Aliens, Martians, (call them what you will) would come and get you, was way more prevalent than what I experienced when I was a child/teenager. I even build a whole personality around myself and build an actual world and stories too. OF course I know it’s not true now, but to know, so many share/shared feelings such as these while straight OR gay. WOW!

    I got to get this book. And the Gerrold book too…. Thanks.

  15. David Gerrold is an amazing author. I sincerely wish he would demonstrate even 1/25th of Scalzis output. The Chtorr books are fantastic, but there hasn’t been a new one since Clinton’s 1st term.

    There. I finally got that out there. I feel better.

    Also: this book looks great and I will buy it and read it.

  16. Ah, “the inner bully”… When I was 11-13 and being bullied/picked on a lot for being different (small, unathletic, smart/bookish) I remember that for a long while I was worried that I had developed multiple personalties. I would say or do something to try to fit in and simultaneously be thinking to myself “where did that come from” as I had no real conscious memory/thought prior to the act/statement being made. It was as if I was two people, one projecting outward, and another -inside that hated what the outside one was doing. The more this went on the more I hated myself. It took a very long time to for me to reconcile the two mes into one and the entire process was horribly painful emotionally. I would have appreciated a book like this back then.

  17. This is missing the issue. There IS NO bullying when a sensitive (read homo superior) child is given sanctuary from institutional schooling (read organised torture) and learns from the internet and books.

    Schools are ONLY suitable for hardy conformers (read homo inferior) but are actually not needed AT ALL in these days of computers. The one good use they could have (availablily of partners plus education in safe sex and respect) is frowned upon by the insitution.

    We must repeal compulsory schooling, aka compulsory torture, laws. The good they did (saving Western children from mines and factories) is no longer an issue.

    Promote home education. A S Neill of Summerhill (I think) made the distinction twixt schooling (all bad so far) and true education (hardly tried yet). The point is that gentle children driven to suicide, are thereby self-revealed as homo superior.

    These mutants must be defended.